Q&A: Erin Rollenhagen

Erin Rollenhagen, founder and CEO of the Urbandale-based software company Entrepreneurial Technologies, grew up in Ames and graduated from the University of Iowa with degrees in economics and management information systems. She has been involved in three tech startups. She is chairwoman of the Technology Association of Iowa’s board of directors.

How do you personally define innovation?
There’s this phenomenon where certain words just capture the essence of something so perfectly that they gather momentum in our culture for a moment in time and everywhere you turn, there’s the word. Then, of course, the paradox is that those words become so overused that your gag reflex triggers a bit when you hear them. It’s a shame, in a way, that “innovation” has become one of those words because nothing else so perfectly sums up the idea of finding a new way to solve a problem that has stood the test of time. That’s true innovation to me; many things are just optimizations of previous ideas that advance the ball incrementally, but when someone attacks a problem from a different angle, that’s when the breakthroughs and the big leaps forward occur.

What did you learn about innovating from your parents/mentors?
I learned that innovation is a way of life, a way of looking at the world. My grandfather was a tool and die maker. He worked on all sorts of different projects, from cars to the little spout that pours salt out of a Morton canister. They would bring him a one-of-a-kind product that someone had made by hand, and he’d have to take it apart and figure out how to break it down into steps and make a machine that could produce that product. My parents had the gene also. My dad designed and built one-of-a-kind houses, and my mom grew plants that most people would not think to grow here. They all have a few things in common: First, they see something that hasn’t been done before as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Second, they instinctively recognize how to break a complex problem into smaller pieces while still retaining a vision for the big picture. And third, they recognize that every problem solved must serve a larger purpose that aligns with your values and what you want to leave behind when your time on this earth ends.

What was your first significant innovation, invention or process?
I’m not sure if it was the first, but I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of purposeful visuals. When I was an intern at a software company in about 2001, as part of a training project I created an interface where users could design their own reports and actually see what it would look like live as they checked and unchecked boxes. This seems really elementary now, but it was kind of next-level 17 years ago, and my mentor at the time said, “This is awesome — but don’t show it to our clients or they’ll all want it.” That was the biggest compliment I could have received.

What are some of the ways that your company cultivates a culture of innovation?
Most innovation doesn’t happen in a straight, clean flash of perfection. It’s messy and fraught with wrong turns and false starts. What separates those who succeed is not that they never fall; it’s that when they do, they dust themselves off and keep going. They take the failure as a data point, not an end point. To do so requires confidence in the process, the team and ourselves. If people believe they will be ridiculed if their idea doesn’t work, that idea will never see the light of day and we all lose something amazing. At the same time, healthy debate is also essential. We have to be able to say to one another, “I see why you’re excited about this, but I have concerns on this front.” The answer we have found to both of those needs is cultivating a culture of honest feedback, and underlying that honesty is absolute respect and trust. When a person knows that the team holds him or her in unshakeable, fundamental value, they are free to give and receive honest feedback. This might sound like a bunch of vague, hard-to-implement mumbo jumbo, but it was surprisingly easy once we flipped the focus. Trying to build trust and respect by focusing on building trust and respect doesn’t work because it lacks authenticity. Sure, the “trust fall” exercise might be fun, but nothing really changes. By focusing instead on the action item of giving and receiving respectful, honest feedback, the trust and respect build organically.

What is Iowa’s biggest challenge when it comes to innovation?
This is the birthplace of the Atanasoff-Berry computer. A state which has more than quadrupled the yield of corn per acre since 1950. Innovation runs deep here. Our greatest challenge is to embrace the accelerating pace of change, and to adapt our education system to the new face of our technology economy. We have to figure out how to cultivate a greater number of deep thinkers and problem solvers with technology skills, or risk choking ourselves out with our own success. That means we have to make educating our kids and adults a priority. The technology industry today is in a war for talent, and that means that instead of spending resources on actually building things, companies are spending more and more resources trying to recruit in an ever more crowded field. As individual companies, we do the best we can but until we increase the pool of talent, it’s zero sum game. We know that the education works, but today we aren’t reaching enough kids, or enough adult learners. We have to ensure equitable access to technology education between urban and rural schools, and also ensure equitable exposure within schools. We have to show kids what they can do with technology, so that they understand that technology is a tool for them to change the world at a much more rapid pace than we could have ever imagined 20 years ago.

What are two or three of the most exciting areas of innovation that you are working in?
Firstly, user interface design is extremely exciting right now. Everything we create on a computer is an illusion — just pixels on a screen that have meaning because we choose to suspend disbelief and walk into that dream world with our eyes wide shut. The very best interfaces warp the line between illusion and reality so well that our mind makes the leap before we even know what’s happening. An early example of this was Windows making things you click on that look like real-world objects like buttons and tabbed folders. Today is an exciting time to make custom software because clients have bought into the importance of user experience and are ready to invest the time and resources needed. Often that extra 20 percent investment can make a huge impact in the reach of the product. Since we aren’t constrained by the physical world, we can make literally anything — and that’s very exciting.
Another thing we have been working with a lot lately is pulling together data from different systems into a centralized hub that provides actionable information. This used to be impossible because the old way of thinking for makers of commercial software was to keep information locked up in a proprietary box that no one could access. This came from a fear that if clients could take their data, they’d leave. The last 10 years or so have seen a big pull away from this model. Businesses have recognized that data is most valuable in context, and in most organizations getting that proper context means talking to more than one system. The cloud movement has had a lot do with this, but installed software providers have done their part, too. As custom software developers, it provides us a great opportunity to make the information businesses need available to them wherever they may be, in whatever format serves them best. Along with this comes being able to develop software for any platform — whether that’s web, phone, tablet or whatever’s next. In today’s landscape the barriers have really decreased, so instead of worrying about what data is available and what code can be written, we can focus on solving the business problem knowing that the technical aspects are very solvable.
Finally, the ability of technology to influence human behavior and solve human problems has been a fascinating area for us. As makers of custom technology products, the things we build can have sweeping implications for how people behave online and in the real world. Think about how in a few short years, social media platforms have changed the ways we interact. We have built tools that reshaped processes and company culture. We have created a virtual marketplace that literally revolutionized an industry. We have created a portal that completely changed the way clients interacted with an organization. It’s an awesome responsibility and a huge opportunity to be stewards of behavioral change.

What technology advances will make it easier for software companies to innovate new products?
Technology investment is always a cost/benefit analysis. The return has to have more than equal the resources invested or the project shouldn’t move forward. Therefore anything that lets us do more at a lower investment leads to innovation.

The internet and open source movements have been huge because they allow people to build upon each other’s advancements. When I first began coding, there was little of this. Information was largely siloed within organizations so a great deal of time was spent solving the same basic problems other organizations were solving and making the same mistakes others had already made, because we didn’t share information. There tended to be this belief that these stacks of boilerplate basic code were somehow an asset that must be protected from prying eyes, when in reality probably every organization in town was sitting on a variation of the same code. It also led to a lot of stagnation because once an organization had invested the huge amount of resources to get something that worked, they were loath to change it. It’s a little like if scientists discovered a new law of physics but wouldn’t tell anyone because they wanted to keep it for themselves. Open source takes a different philosophy and believes that code becomes stronger the more people are questioning it, critiquing it and contributing to its development. It also allows us to build upon each others’ successes to advance the industry. There used to be a lot of resistance to open source among clients because some people didn’t understand it and thought it meant that their code would be public for anyone to see. The business world is beginning to understand open source better and realize that rather than open sourcing a client’s entire project, custom developers use open source foundations when appropriate and contribute back select, reusable pieces when appropriate. This is the best of both worlds for business and technology communities.
There’s also been increased emphasis on making things that are universal rather than coding to specific devices, formats and platforms. Today’s technology landscape involves a dizzying array of scenarios. A few years ago, developers would code to each one individually. This led to a multiplication of resources but without a corresponding uptick in the product itself — it was just a cost of doing business to reach the masses. Recently, the industry has focused on standards and strategies that allow the same code to work everywhere. We fully support this movement because it frees up resources to spend them on the features that will really drive clients’ businesses forward.

What areas of education or expertise are in the shortest supply for your company and others like it?
We are at an interesting point because today the actual tools and practice of technology are changing so rapidly that by the time someone completed a degree, many of those specific methods would be obsolete. That sounds depressing but what we have learned is that the new techniques are actually very easy for someone to pick up, provided they have the right foundation. That foundation is critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Someone who possesses those can transition quickly from one platform to the next. Another important aspect is communication skills and the ability to be productive in a team. Our work is truly group problem solving, so these skills are essential. Interestingly, when talking to other business owners in our industry and beyond, the same skills continue to come up so I know we are not alone. I think this shift from a reliance on specific applied skills to a need for more advanced, analytical skills reflects the maturation of the industry and our economy as a whole.

What do you see as the most pressing global innovation challenge?

Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” We have created, out of necessity, a thing that has changed our society so much that it now wields a power of its own. It’s our responsibility to be thoughtful in the way we shape the technology of tomorrow so that the society it molds is one in which we still want to live. We as a world have lived somewhat naively to this point, creating things haphazardly and without much care to the long-term consequences. We can no longer pretend to be ignorant of the impact of our creations. We have to think not only of solving the immediate problem, but of the goal of engineering a better world. No one organization or company can do this alone, but yet we all must take on the charge individually. It’s critical that we do this because changing our own behavior is our best hope for survival. We are constrained to a finite amount of physical resources, and yet our population keeps growing. Social responsibility is not a luxury, it’s a requirement in today’s world. Through technology we have the challenge to reshape what has often been a drive toward selfish behavior, and channel that toward the higher good.

What is your top goal in the innovation world this year?
We always strive to keep getting better. Working on the projects our clients bring to us is a great avenue for this because it pushes real-world problems from a wide variety of industries in front of us. There’s also a special joy in solving a problem for its own sake, however. This year we are committed to taking on something just because we want to do it and it sounds interesting. I think the opportunity to be creative for its own sake will be energizing
to all of us. Fundamentally, people who get into this business are here because they want to solve problems and make a difference. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.